Gilberts: Henry Smyth was a man for the times

Fortunately every community seems to have at least one but, unfortunately, their true worth is seldom recognized until they are long gone and, for the most part, forgotten.

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Fortunately, every community seems to have at least one but, unfortunately, their true worth is seldom recognized until they are long gone and, for the most part, forgotten. A gentleman in our area who would be an ideal nominee for that distinction would have to be the ultimate politician and entrepreneur, Henry Smyth.

Smyth was born Nov. 20, 1841, and, due to the fact his father died when he was quite young, Smyth assumed a great deal of responsibility at an early age. Intent on a career in law, he, for one reason or another (most likely financial), decided to switch into real estate. According to the transactions recorded at the registry office in Chatham with his name involved, Smyth obviously made a great deal of money in a short period of time during the early growth period in the Town of Chatham’s history.

By the time he was 25 in 1866, Henry Smyth was elected to Chatham town council; by 1867, he was deputy reeve and, in 1869, the ambitious young politician had become mayor of Chatham.

Smyth was elected on the strength of his youth and forward-thinking views. He made it clear to everyone that he was not to be deterred from carrying out progressive ideas for the booming town of Chatham. One of his first actions as mayor was to rid Chatham of its many one-way streets. He felt that through streets were the mark of a civilized town and provided for a better flow of commerce and industry.

In 1880, Smyth was no longer mayor but still regarded as an important enough citizen to take part in the planting of the first maple trees in Tecumseh Park along with Mayor Northwood.

That same year, he, along with William McKeough, William J. Howard and others, applied for permission from the Chatham and Charing Cross Railway to connect with the Great Western Railway, which, of course, was designed to make Chatham products much more marketable.

By 1882, Smyth had been elected mayor of Chatham on three separate occasions and now was ready for a new challenge. On June 20 of that year, Smyth was chosen by the local Conservative Party to be their MP. He replaced Rufus Stephenson, who Smyth had supported, guided and counselled throughout the former’s term in Parliament. In later years, Smyth was quoted as saying that it had been “HIS brains and HIS money” that had kept Stephenson in office for so long. In Smyth’s case, this was probably no idle boast.

Once in office, Smyth acted as a model representative. He worked tirelessly for his constituents and was constantly ready to serve all without any regard for race, colour or creed and whether they had voted for him or not. In the late 1880s, this was somewhat of a rarity.

Still in his 40s, Henry Smyth seemed to have a bright future and a long life in national politics, and even a possible cabinet post was not out of the question. But in 1897, the proverbial roof fell in on Smyth.

Due to a strong anti-Conservative feeling in the country, and some local political trickery and dirty dealing, Smyth lost his MP status to the Liberal candidate Archibald McKellar. As if this was not bad enough, Smyth’s substantial wealth disappeared in the same time period due to the failings of a large, seemingly secure investment.

Smyth then decided to return to municipal politics in 1893 and was, for an unprecedented fourth time, elected mayor of the Town of Chatham. This was followed up by his election, in 1897, to the City of Chatham as Chatham had reached city status in 1895.

At the end of 1897, Smyth dropped out of politics and, after 31 years in this topsy-turvy political world, most people felt that he would be very content to retire to a life of relative calm. However, the urge hit Smyth again in 1914 and, at the ripe old age of 73, ran one more time for mayor of Chatham.

He urged that the mouth of the Thames River have its sand bar, which represented a serious navigational hazard, removed, saying that step and protective works would eliminate future ice jams and subsequent floods. Although Smyth lost this election by a narrow 300 votes and was seen by many as “yesterday’s man,” his forward-thinking views in regards to the Thames River would have averted the disastrous floods of 1937 and 1947.

On Dec. 23, 1929, the inevitable occurred and Henry Smyth, in his 89th year, quietly passed from this life and into the next. His legacy was one that has never been surpassed in local politics.  A half-century separated his first foray into political life and his last.

It could be said, without question, that Henry Smyth was a charismatic, generous, innovative, hard-working individual who possessed a sharp and shrewd political mind. Smyth, after all is said and done, could, with great justification, be described as the greatest politician in Chatham’s political history.

Unfortunately, his name and his deeds, like so many other key political figures in Chatham-Kent and countless other areas, have been lost in the annals of time. What a terrible shame!

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.